By Jonathan Williams
Clara thought she would die. The water from the East River traveled inland to her house on Wolcott Street. It started in her basement and kept rising. Clara and her husband went into their attic and stayed there throughout the night, praying that the water level in their home would subside.
When they came down in the morning, their house was ruined. The water had receded and taken everything with it. Most of her possessions were washed right out of the house, stolen by Superstorm Sandy.
And that’s where we met Clara, standing outside on a muddy street in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn, looking for what was lost.
Three weeks prior to Sandy, Forefront Brooklyn was born. It was a church birthed out of the vision to see lives and neighborhoods renewed through the power of Jesus Christ. It was a church that would focus on its neighbors, its neighborhoods, and the great organizations doing work to reconcile some of the 2.6 million residents who live in Brooklyn back to their creator. In short, Forefront Brooklyn was created to be a missional church.
Missional churches are all the rage these days. Churches from all over the United States are ready to place themselves into the missional category. Add an inner-city mission trip, hold the annual VBS in a public park, pass out a few water bottles on main street, and the church is missional!
If that is missional, we were not interested. We wanted to go beyond missional. We wanted to focus serious energy on our neighbors and our community. We wanted to pay attention. We wanted to change the scorecard. And that’s what we’ve attempted to do.
A Different Scorecard
A year before Forefront Brooklyn even started, we decided we should meet once a month. We would gather, eat together, laugh, pray, and take part in what was generally considered a launch meeting.
There was, however, one major difference. Our launch meetings took place at the same time we were carving pumpkins at the homeless shelter for a Halloween party. Our launch meetings took place while we educated our friends and neighbors in job training and résumé writing. There was even one launch meeting that took place while we played card games with the developmentally disabled.
Our goal as a church was to go beyond missional. Our goal was to worry less about our core groups and attendance. We wanted to worry less about funding. We didn’t want to think about programs until we were able to come together as a group and pray for Wayne as he worked to overcome schizophrenia, prepare meals for a newly arrived immigrant, Kazim, and his family, and celebrate when Carl, who was out of work for years, finally got an internship.
The scorecard was changing. Our successes were being measured differently. There was a buzz around our group. Our outward focus took shape, and we found ourselves truly reconciling others back to their creator one relationship at a time. We realized we didn’t have to offer new church programs. We didn’t have to offer “question and answer” nights telling others what our new church would look like. People were able to experience our church. They were able to step into the mess with others in the community and watch as people began to bear fruit.
Missional was no longer a buzzword. It wasn’t a few steps to reach out. It was intertwined into the fabric of our church. It was part of our DNA. Stories started pouring in. Sunday wasn’t the most important day of the week. It was the day we were able to come together and share our stories of the days before. Sunday was the day we came together to celebrate the stories of God’s kingdom being renewed.
It was then we knew we were ready to officially launch our church.
And so we launched Forefront Brooklyn church on September 23, 2012. In our second week of existence we ended church early to take part in a block party. We painted faces and created photo booths for public use. The following week the entire church went to brunch at a new restaurant in the neighborhood. We wanted the owners to know we supported them and their work in the community.
The next week Sandy hit.
Eighty people in New York’s tristate area lost their lives. New York City alone suffered $82 billion in damages. Millions of people were without power and thousands more lost their homes. The worst damage was in Brooklyn.
Forefront Brooklyn was young. Surely little would be expected. We were in the process of establishing ourselves as a congregation. We couldn’t possibly make a dent in the work that needed to be done.
In the early hours after Sandy passed through New York, I received a text message from a friend and core member of our church.
“You ready to get started?”
Every so often I need to be hit over the head by the call of God. The truth is we were ready. The truth is that our call to go beyond missional, our call to change the scorecard, had us prepared to continue what we’d done all along: restore and renew lives and neighborhoods through the power of Jesus Christ one relationship at a time.
Within a few hours of Sandy, more than 50 of our church members were on the ground ready to help those in need. With the help and leadership of our parent church, Forefront Manhattan, and another start-up church in Philadelphia, 7 Mile Road, we were able to provide sorely needed generators to hurricane shelters throughout the city.
Other churches from Baltimore, New Philadelphia, Ohio, and even Iowa drove long hours through the night to offer their help.
The next day we brought any supplies we could find to the hard-hit area of Red Hook, Brooklyn, where we saw the devastation firsthand. Houses were demolished, roads were still muddy from the receding water, cars were strewn about, and the residents were lost, including Clara.
Clara walked up to us and asked us if we were a group that could help. With great hesitation we said “yes.” There was much that needed done. The jobs seemed too big. She gave me her address and asked us to meet her at what remained of her house later in the day. When we arrived, we saw an entire block of homes devastated by Sandy. We met a young man named Malik who spent the evening clinging to a support pole in his home while the water rushed in. Another man, Raymond, talked about keeping his 87-year-old mother away from danger throughout the night. “She has dementia. She doesn’t know better,” he said.
A few of us began the insurmountable task of cleaning Clara’s home. The next day a few more folks went and ripped out the molded drywall in Malik’s apartment. The next Sunday we prayed for New York City, and then watched as more than half of our church set off for Wolcott Street, cleaning supplies in hand.
Reconciling Our Neighbors to God
Months have passed, and members of our community continue to visit Wolcott Street. Bobby checks in on Raymond’s mother with dementia. Matt shows up to nail in new drywall. Sam and others simply make sure basements are ready for new heaters and boilers to be installed by FEMA.
Others in our community moved their efforts to Coney Island, where we’ve given ongoing help to Naomi Zion A.M.E. Church, which lost everything in the storm and has been having services over the sound of generators. Its parishioners used flashlights. Our church partnered with Naomi Zion to make sure the congregation could get back on its feet.
And still others continue to pay attention, looking to be used by God to reconcile our neighbors back to their creator one relationship at a time.
Jen tutors Mike. He struggles with alcoholism and schizophrenia. Sometimes he comes to church and talks in the middle of the message. Last week Mike just listened. “I like you guys. I’m trying to do better,” he said.
A small group in our neighborhood heard that a homeless shelter was moving in. There was a neighborhood meeting to discuss the shelter. Some thought it wasn’t safe for the children of the neighborhood. Our small group decided we would go to the meeting—in support of the shelter.
This is difficult. I don’t like it when Mike talks during my messages. It throws me off. Our position on the neighborhood shelter makes us unpopular with some of our neighbors. There are times it’s easier to ignore the homes that still need repair.
There are times where we don’t get it right as a church. There are times we worry more about whether or not we’ve put enough chairs in our worship space. We worry about having our Scripture shown in the right font on our media screen. We even worry about our Communion juice. No off brands allowed!
And then we remember our neighbor Clara and the beauty of God’s community.
It’s in the beauty of our community Jesus continues to dig around us. He continues to get in the mess, to prune and grow us so we can bear fruit, so we can truly be a church that joins God in his mission to reconcile each neighbor back to the creator, one relationship at a time.
Jonathan Williams is pastor with Forefront Church, Brooklyn, New York.